The Davenport City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to award a $10.5 million sewer tunnel construction bid to Foley Construction of Davenport, rejecting a lower $8.2 million bid from S.J. Louis Construction, a Minnesota firm.
The Rockville, Minn.-based company had a significantly lower bid for the long-anticipated West Side Sewer Diversion project than two local companies - Foley and Langman Construction of Rock Island. Both of those companies' bids were in the $10.5 million to $10.9 million range.
Evidence from S.J. Louis' oversight of other large-scale projects - including a major sewer tunnel project in Des Moines - convinced aldermen that the company could not be considered the lowest, responsible bidder.
For the second week in a row, union members and others picketed outside City Hall, urging aldermen to deny the bid and keep the work local.
The Indiana-Illinois-Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, or III FFC - a labor-management group that promotes fair contracting - helped organize the opposition to the bid. The organization provided stacks of paperwork and photos they said documented shoddy workmanship, poor working conditions and troubling safety violations by S.J. Louis.
Councils are prohibited by state law from awarding contracts based solely on keeping work in their own community. However, an admission from S.J. Louis' owner Jim Schueller that he was not aware that workers were living in campers at an S.J. Louis work site in Des Moines and appeared to be directing raw sewage from the site into the Raccoon River were enough to sway the vote.
"My concern is that a lot of these problems we're seeing are problems they're not catching," said 6th Ward Alderman Jeff Justin. "And that's unacceptable. These are fundamental safety procedures."
Compounding the aldermen's worries was a perception that a project manager and a safety director for S.J. Louis sent to Davenport last week could not answer specific questions about the company's safety record or how many local workers it would employ.
In a memo City Administrator Craig Malin drafted prior to the meeting, in which he reversed the staff's previous recommendation to award the bid to S.J. Louis, he touched on those issues.
"While the Council could table the matter further and request a project team that has significantly more experience, the apparent underlying disparity between how S.J. Louis views the project and how Davenport views the project would remain," he wrote. "With weeks to prepare to answer a wide range of legitimate concerns, S.J. Louis was principally represented by inexperienced employees that could neither adequately answer questions nor convey any sense that S.J. Louis understands the visibility and importance of the project to the city."
Wednesday night, Schueller said he would assign a new project manager and safety director to the Davenport project.
"We feel we have a very good safety record and do take safety as a very serious thing and view our employees as the most valued asset we have," he said.
But the promises were too little, too late to sway minds.
"After witnessing the performance of the representatives S.J. Louis wanted to send to Davenport, I was convinced they did not have the best interests of Davenport at heart," said 2nd Ward Alderman Bill Edmond. "I've probably been the biggest proponent for hiring S.J. Louis, because I thought it would save Davenport $2.5 million. But this might be the most important project we've ever done and they had two weeks to send their A team and instead we got the B team."
John Freitag, a supervisor with the III FFC, said the packed council chambers and protests may have made a difference, but those opposing the bid award had the law on their side.
"The City Council did the right thing and they followed what the law required," he said. "I would say (the support) had to make a bit of difference, but really it was the company's past performance that mattered."